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Teaching Your Child a Love for Learning

by Mary D. Hendricks. PhD
(Formerly with the Department of Teacher Education, University of Arkansas at Little Rock at the original printing of this article)

Children begin learning the moment they are born, and their parents are the first and most important teachers. Parents often want to help their children learn and, more importantly, help them develop a love of learning. To help stimulate that love, parents should understand child development and recognize that children must take the lead in guiding their own learning process.

Infants learn about their environment by looking, feeling, hearing, tasting and smelling. They learn that being wet is uncomfortable and that a nipple provides food. Infants discover many things about the objects and people in their environment. When an adult responds quickly to a crying baby, with a soothing voice and a comforting action, the infant learns that she is important and that someone will come when she asks for attention. Whether reaching for a spoon to help with her own feeding or banging an object to cause movement or noise, an infant is learning.

While an infant's signals may be clear, older children often have more subtle behaviors. These less obvious behaviors can make it difficult for parents to determine when a child is excited about something she is experiencing or exploring. Because of this, adults may not respond when a child invites them to become a part of her learning experience.

Most children will be interested in a new or different activity, and parents and other adults can do many things to help a child stay interested and involved in an activity. Expressing enthusiasm for their child's involvement in an activity without taking over is a real challenge for parents. Follow your child's lead and avoid the temptation to swoop in with lots of information and ideas. Letting your child set the pace helps assure that he is engaged in a way that suits him, rather than the adults, in his environment.

Commenting about what a child is doing is one way to show interest without taking over. Saying, "You have made a tall tower with your blocks," rather than, "You made a tower. Let me show you how to make a car," is an example of commenting on rather than directing the activity. Asking an "I wonder…." question, (e.g. " I wonder what would happen if…" or "I wonder where we could find…") can extend a child's involvement to include new discoveries without directing the experience. Listening carefully to a child's descriptions and explanations can help an adult discover how the child is undertstanding the experience.

Children are generally most interested in the world they know. For very young children, this means self, family and things they interact with every day. For older children, the environment has typically expanded to include new friends and acquaintances in their daily routine, (e.g. people in the grocery store, in the neighborhood, the mail carrier) and objects or events they are beginning to experience beyond the home.

Providing new experiences for children presents an opportunity for them to grow and develop. Creating a place to play that is physically and emotionally safe involves changing what is in the space to fit a child's age and abilities. Infants need a place where they can crawl around, pick up, touch and grab objects without fear of being hurt. Older children need larger spaces that contain both familiar and unfamiliar items. They also need materials that permit and encourage independence. The selection of new experiences for children should relate to their developmental maturity and individual interests. The toys and activities you provide for a 2-year-old should be different from those you provide for a 5-year-old. By paying attention to the activities your child chooses, especially in new situations, you will discover the experiences your child will most likely enjoy. New experiences do not need to be special or expensive. Children can get as much from a romp through the sprinkler or a walk in the garden as they can from a trip to the zoo or fair.

Learning is a process that involves active participation. Observing, touching, smelling, tasting and hearing are ways each of us experience our world. Children are no different. The way your child feels about things is just as important to his growth and development as knowing the facts. Acknowledging how a child feels about an experience helps us understand what the child is experiencing and lets the child know that he is both special and important.

Parents and other adults can do many things to support a child's sense of excitement about learning. Show your surprise, interest and enthusiasm for the experiences of your life. As your child's first teacher, you provide an important and lasting example of what it means to love learning.

Show Approval and Encouragement

When your child tries to solve a problem, displays an important skill (e.g., listening or concentrating) or displays any behavior that you would like to be repeated, let him know you notice and appreciate it. Showing approval and encouragement is one of the best ways you can help your child establish an inner drive toward achievement. Behaviors that are praised and encouraged are likely to be repeated. You can show your approval in many ways: with words (Good job!), hugs, kisses, applause or pats on the back.

Time it Right

When you set aside time to spend with your child, be sure to choose times when your child is rested and content. The better you and your child feel; the more enjoyable the time you spend together will be.

Interact With Your Child

Try to set aside some special time each day to spend with your child. Then, spend this time engaged in an activity that your child enjoys. Regular time spent with your child provides many benefits. First of all, it will let your child know that you value her company. Secondly, the more time you and your child spend together, the more you'll get to know each other.

Give Your Child the Space to Explore

While it is important that you pay attention to your child, it is also important to give your child the space to do things on his own. If you constantly hover, your child will never learn how to entertain himself. If you try to solve every problem for your child, he won't learn how to solve problems on his own.

Provide Lots of Love

The best environment for learning is one which includes a lot of love and acceptance; providing the security children need to grow and thrive. Fortunately, loving your child is something that comes naturally.

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